Serving Time in Alabama: A Review of Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

IMG_3258Breathe in rural Alabama circa 1925.  Take deep breaths, “great lungfuls of the scent-tinged air—grass and cornstalks and peanut plants, mulch and dung and mule hide” (159).  Feel the heat of July.  “This low sun turns every lick of water to steam, even the fresh-pumped drinks in our mess-issued bottles.  The sun bakes those metal canteens, boiling the liquid inside, and we chase our thirst with water so hot it burns our tongues” (167).

Are you here yet?  Good.  Settle in.  There’s a long prison sentence to serve.  Regrets aplenty to mull over.  Deaths to mourn: for an electrocuted man, for future children unborn.  Righteous indignation over injustices on simmer: for black men leased out by the state to work in deadly coal mines, for prisoners maimed and abused.

But even in the swelter there are graces aplenty.  A wrench of warblers will chirp outside the window.  A hound named Maggie will curl against your legs in the night when you are reduced to sleeping on the floor of an abandoned cottage.  Canned peaches spiced with clove and cinnamon will appear on your table.  There is beauty here and, beyond any expectation, a resilient capacity for tenderness.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves has written a gentle debut novel about difficult things.  It is a small novel in that it brings us into close proximity with one man, Roscoe T. Martin, and the incident that leads to his long incarceration at Kilby Prison.  A man fascinated with the newfound power of electrification, Martin tries to wire his way out of the dark cloud that is engulfing his marriage and the farm that he has been given by his father-in-law.

With the help of Wilson, an African-American man who has been faithfully working the property for years, Martin taps into the new Alabama Power lines crossing the property, an act, that despite its illegality, brings light to the house, productivity to the thresher, and new life to his previously distant wife, Marie, and their young son, Gerald.  When a power company worker stumbles upon the tap line and is electrocuted, Martin and Wilson are sent away.  Martin to Kilby and Wilson to the coal mines as a leased-out prisoner.

Roscoe’s perspective dominates the central part of the book as he deals with the indignities of prison life and the isolation from his wife and son.  Marie doesn’t respond to his letters or visit him, and we, along with Roscoe, aren’t sure why, until her voice finally appears some chapters into his prison term.

Time shifts as Reeves remembers how their relationship began.  Then, as his physical condition deteriorates, a young version of Marie begins to appear as an apparition that offers him unreliable counsel.  He worries as well about Wilson’s fate.  When he is finally released he is a broken man, sent home to try and uncover a future.

Marie’s sense of moral outrage at Roscoe’s act seems a bit overblown and her late 20th century sensibilities about race relations seem a little anachronistic.  She is not as fully-drawn as Roscoe, but the sections where we do get a chance to glimpse her inner life are among the best-written parts of this book.  To wit, this passage which captures the conflict she is feeling:

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Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett

Marie missed her father.  She missed Roscoe, too, but only in isolated scenes—there along the Coosa River where they would walk, an afternoon here in the farmhouse in their shared bed, the kitchen of their village house, infant Gerald in his arms.  When she thought of him whole, though, she cringed.  As a whole man—full up of his past and his choices and his actions—she wanted nothing to do with him.  (85)

What is this book about?  The possibility and miracle of love.  The seduction and wonder of technology.  The history of Alabama prisons.  The social divisions and structures that infest our closest relationships.  The things that break us down and the hope that binds us together.  The deep longings that assure our endurance.  The mad ways marriage partners wound one another and the way reconciliation works and doesn’t between them.

Yes, all that.  But it is as much about the earthy fragrance and ambient noises of Alabama.  That which transcends is as particular and miraculous as a breath of mulch and dung and mule hide.  Reeves takes us there.

(And shout out to Deborah Lewis for sending me here, to this book.)

Work Like Any Other: A Novel

by Virginia Reeves

Scribner, 2016

262 pages

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.

Churches & Dysfunctional Government – An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – Part 2 of 3

IMG_5610We are repenting from our assumption that government can be an adequate expression of our faith.  That’s one of the marks of these times for Christians on both sides of the Great Divide.  

When Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkley sociologist, went to Louisiana to try to understand the deep story of people on the American Right, she found that churches were a significant part of the story.  In the last part of my interview with Hochschild, we talked about her project which led to her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Today we talk churches, dysfunctional government, and, O yes, a fishing trip across the Great Divide:

 

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Arlie Russell Hochschild

You evidently spent some time in a lot of churches down in Louisiana while you were there.  What was your impression of the role religion plays in this whole narrative?

Oh, it’s enormous.  I think this may be one source of the partition, between red and blue, but certainly not entirely.  The churches were hugely important as a source of community, and solace, and practical help for particular problems.  We were at a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church.  I didn’t make it to the Methodist church.  They’re known to be more progressive.  And the Catholic church less so.  But these large churches—I came to understand why they feel important.  People tithe to them very willingly and happily, so taxes to the government–which help the line-cutters and not them–are more resented, because they feel they’re already being taxed in a way, but for something they believe in.

A lot of social services are associated with these churches.  They’re filling in where the government is lifting out in a way.  So, there’d be a gym.  “Oh, my mother-in-law lost 50 pounds at the Baptist gym.”  Or, “Oh, when our marriage was in trouble, we went to the counselors at the church.”  Or, “There’s a teen area.  My 12-year-old likes to go with her friends there and to summer camp.”  It really had a surround sound kind of feel to it, like you weren’t just there an hour and a half on Sunday.  It was more a way of life.  There were several services during the day.  I kind of felt that it had absorbed the space that a dysfunctional government had left.

Yeah.  When you say ‘dysfunctional government’, which of the levels of government did you feel was the most dysfunctional, or impacted the people the most? 

The state.  There was big petrochemical development, and they proudly called themselves the buckle in America’s energy belt.  But oil was the dominant economic force.  The oil companies had really–I came to conclude–bought the state of Louisiana.  The environmental agencies that were designated the job of protecting people from pollution weren’t doing that.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_There was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  It didn’t even have the name ‘protection’ in it.  There were permit hearings [to determine] ‘Could Sasol lift out so many metric tons of water from Lake Charles, and disperse–they call it ‘produced water,’ well, it’s got toxic chemicals in it–back in.  Well, yes, the permit would go right through.  People would object, but it went through anyway.  That was the state department of environmental quality that was doing this.

So, people came to think, “Oh, goodness.  I’m paying taxes for the nice house for this officer for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not protecting me.”

If you step back three steps, you could say that the state was doing the moral dirty work of the oil company.  It works like this: Oil companies were given, by Governor Bobby Jindal and the state government, $1.6 billion in incentives money to lure them to Louisiana, (as if they would go somewhere else).  With that money, they had a lot of money to give out, which they did in donations to the Audubon Society and so on.

Meanwhile, the state government also made sure that its office of environmental protection, on the one hand, promised to protect people from pollution, and didn’t, so that the Louisiana Industrial Alliance could proudly boast that regulations were as swift and easily guided–easily bypassed, in essence–more so than in any other state.  I put it differently in the book, but that’s what it amounted to.

So, people felt the state isn’t doing its job, and that a federal government is just a bigger, badder version than this captured Louisiana state government.  That suggests that we really ought to find out: Are these Red states actually more corrupt, more bought by industry, than Blue states?  Are people actually responding very reasonably to the disappointments of living with a captured state?

Does that mean that they’re also being redirected—turning that anger towards the federal government and letting the state get off free?

Yes, right.  When I say ‘captured’, I mean captured by industry.  The state becomes captured by the industries that settle in it.  That’s because they actually pay the election fee; they pay candidates political donations.  They are a source of revenue for the mass media, so that radio bites its tongue on reporting on environmental disasters.  You just don’t hear about them.  Or ads to newspapers.  The American Press in Lake Charles never mentioned problems with the environment.

So, various branches of civic society have been bought, in fact.  I think that is a realistic worry.  I didn’t go in knowing that, but I came out thinking, “Well, I get it, why they’re so cynical about government.”  If they think all government works like this government, wow.  I’d think the same thing.

IMG_3306This Mike Schaff that you uncovered was a really interesting character.  He seems like a really rare flower, combining being an environmental activist and a Tea Party member.  Are there more like him out there? 

You know, there are more like him out there.  Right where he is, no, he remains a rare flower.  But in northern Louisiana, since the book came out, there’s a group of Tea Party people that say, “No.  Our water…the salt content is going up, because of…I think, fracking.”  And they want to stop that.  So, yes.

Actually, Yale University has an environmental polling data source.  There’s a center for research on attitudes towards the environment that has the latest and best data on that.  Renewable energy is a crossover issue.  The Right believes in it not quite as much as the Left, but it’s crossover, and we could really agree on that.  Donald Trump isn’t playing to that, but if you look at how right-wingers really feel, they’re very interested in it.

In fact, I took my son, who is a big environmentalist.  He’s a member of the energy commission here in the state of California—a big environmentalist and very interested in solar energy.  I took him down with me last time, after the book was published, to spend a few days with Mike Schaff.  I said, “Let’s just go out fishing.  I want you guys to see if you can come to some common ground on renewable energy.  I’m just going to hold the tape recorder.”  And they did.

In the end, Mike Schaff said, “Oil’s end is coming–we’re running out of it anyway.  I think solar energy–I’d love to have it on my roof, on my boat, everywhere.”  David, my son, pops up, “Well, and it would also mitigate the effects of global warming.”  Mike said, “No, no, no.  I don’t believe in global warming.  People around here don’t, but if you want to sell solar energy here in our oil country for right-wingers like myself, what you should say is that when you have a solar panel, you’re an independent producer and you are feeding clean energy into the grid and getting paid for it.  You’re independent.”  So, Mike Shaff was telling my son what to say to sell this idea to people like himself.

Part 3 – Talking with Anarchists.

The Empty Bench at The Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner

3d11324a8832ade1a45c28b039485cf2The sofa bench in the back of The Book Bin was empty the other day.  The regulars by the coffee window are hesitant to sit there.  A sign on the door indicates that the staff knows that our local independent book store will be a place of mourning and memory for awhile.  The bench was Kirk Mariner’s, a place for reading the paper and sharing in the community that he was so much a part of and that he helped to build.  As the sign says, he was “a true cornerstone of the Shore.”

IMG_6376When the Rev. Dr. Kirk Mariner died, suddenly in the end, it caught us all up short.  The author, historian, preacher, and musician was woven firmly into the texture of this place.  Wines are supposed to reflect the terroir, the environment in which they are produced, and Kirk’s terroir was unmistakably Eastern Shore.  It is there in books that were so particular that they became universal.  If he had not been so identified as a local historian, a book like Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, would be justly recognized as one of the great studies of race and class in pre-Civil War America.

So what’s the best tribute to the man?  A well-done worship such as he fussed over.  An historical record that doesn’t overstate the case but is sure to include some telling anecdote and smiles.  A measured skepticism of schemes.  A lament over communities lost—ecclesial and geographical.  A glimmering-eyed ballad tweaking too-dearly-held nostalgias.  A warm love of the nurturing matrix of congregational song and the long line of Methodists who sang them before.

IMG_6377What will I remember?  The eye and ear for beauty.  The wind blowing through his impressive hair as he headed out to Tangier on the Joyce Marie II ferry.  The insatiable curiosity.  The generous spirit that wanted to see a young preacher do well.  The judicious ‘no’ to push said preacher on to initiative.  The contrarian’s slightly-jaundiced eye.  The off-hand remark that only later lands as the compliment it was.

The fullness of place embodied in a soul.  The trust in a story that began before he arrived and which claimed him as he told and retold it.  A lover in the arms of his Beloved, sung homeward by the Church he needled and cherished.  A sheep of God’s own fold.  A lamb of God’s own flock.  A sinner of God’s own redeeming.  A Methodist.

I give thanks to God for that wonder that is Kirk Mariner.

Obituary from Williams Funeral Homes.

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 1 of 3

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsCan a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground?  That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.  

When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans.  It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them.  The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.

What made you undertake this experiment?

I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government.  That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.

I decided, “I’m in a bubble.”  In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble.  If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.

So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with.  I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.”  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Really?  How so?

I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there.  How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story? 

I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted.  [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide.  Well, we’re worried about the divide, too.  So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.”  That happened to me a great number of times.  It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.

I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing.  I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images.  How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation?  That’s how the deep story was born.  It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.

That was an act of my mental process.  Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real?  Let me try this out on you.  Does this work?  Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?”  Some people [agreed], just as is.  “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman.  Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff.  Others would say, “Well, wait a minute.  You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”

So, they would change it.  Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute.  We got a line.  We move to a different line.”  They would modify the ending, the middle.  So, I put that in, too.  Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this.  Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?”  Or does this same story have a different endings?

That’s where my mind is now.  I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them.  Then, of course, how do we undo them?

I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”

Right.  I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees.  It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider.  I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders.  So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.

I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative.  That really feels recent.

And Muslims.  There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana.  There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.

Right.  You mentioned an allegory.  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?

No.

It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story.  But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.

Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and bottom.”  And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.

Yes.  Thank you for flagging that for me.  I’m going to read that.

Part 2–Churches & Dysfunctional Government.

Back to the Cross: The Inclusive Vision of Fleming Rutledge

 

yY623rKO_400x400If the theology podcast Crackers & Grape Juice has any redeeming value*, (and Lord knows they have interviewed some questionable characters in their brief existence—primary evidence: their January interview with me!), it is the recurring “Fridays with Fleming” segments that have introduced the Episcopal priest and theologian, Fleming Rutledge, to a wider audience.  With her Tidewater Virginia roots resonating in her every word, Rutledge makes an enthralling and poetic conversationalist, touching as easily on literature and the arts as on theology.

Beneath the gentility and on the page, however, Rutledge is a lucid and systematic thinker who has a preacher’s knack for communicating difficult theological concepts.  That’s nowhere more present than in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  It is a massive tome filled with footnotes, but every page and every note is worth it for the comprehensive journey the reader takes with a gifted and entertaining author.

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Rutledge’s primary conviction is that the cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Christian story.  Her primary worry is that, in our efforts to divert our attention from the cross—its violence, the way that it has been captured by a narrow, individualized, evangelical message—we have lost the richness and fullness of biblical motifs that would help us understand why it is so central.  “No one image can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation,” she says.  “We need to make room for all the biblical images.” (7)  And so she does.

You will find here sacrifice and substitution, the themes that make many mainline theologians nervous, but you will also find a thorough-going apocalyptic vision that reclaims Christus Victor language, not as an exclusive lens for seeing the crucifixion, but as a dominant one.  Rutledge finds her way to this by reviewing Paul’s neglected language of the Powers and by taking seriously the cosmic conflict of God and the Devil.  “Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramas personae,” Rutledge says, “God and humanity—thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.” (377)  Rutledge wants to have us be witnesses to the invasion that is taking place in the Incarnation as God confronts the powers of Sin and Death.

Rutledge has heavy-hitting theological partners on her side – Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart, but she has Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison as well.  Her argument is for inclusion of voices and against the flattening tendencies of so much post-Enlightenment discourse.  “Much of today’s literal-mindedness is doubtless owing to the fact that fewer and fewer people read novels and poetry,” she says. (211)

So the authors and theologians mingle with the preachers in these pages, all seeking something more than a pristine plan.  There are no innocents in human history, Rutledge emphasizes frequently.  “An eight-year-old can see more clearly than some of the rest of us that well-meaning programs for improving the human species are not going to accomplish much besides making the designers of the program feel good about themselves.  We don’t need a program; we need deliverance from this whole cycle of violence and vengefulness.  Humankind needs to be saved from itself.” (308)

It is for this reason that Rutledge comes to an appreciative evaluation of the theme (biblical!) of substitution.  Surprisingly, she quotes a passage in Barth that brings home the implications of the motif with psychological insight:

“It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong…We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves.  It is therefore a liberation that…[in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.” (519)

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.  Freed from being innocent, we are capable of participating in a story that is ultimately not about us, or perhaps more accurately, far more than only about us.  It’s about a God who goes the distance, to Death itself, and thereby raises the dead.

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.

There’s far more here.  Evil, hell, the wrath of God—she tackles them all.  But there is poetry and light and fodder for a hundred sermons and more.  This is equally important and lovely.  It makes this book great.

*There is actually much to recommend Crackers & Grape Juice and its 4-person hosting crew of United Methodist pastors – Jason Micheli, Taylor Mertins, Morgan Guyton & Teer Hardy.

Guest Blogger – C. Christopher Smith: Stirring the Economic Imaginations of Churches

 

I’ve learned a lot about books from C. Christopher Smith.  Chris is not only the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, to which I occasionally contribute.  His press is also the publisher of my book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine

He’s a great observer and interpreter of where the church is and what it could be in the 21st century.  He’s also charting new paths by caring about books and the people who write them, or as he puts it: “We review books that we believe are valuable resources for the people of God, as we follow the mission of God: i.e., the reconciliation of all things.”  Today he’s guest blogger on Heartlands:

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C. Christopher Smith

As I’ve traveled across the US talking with churches about my recent book Slow Church (co-written with John Pattison), I’ve found that many mainline churches and some evangelical ones – largely in urban or rural places – are struggling with shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets. Many leaders of these churches are bordering on despair, because like most people in the Western world they have been formed by an economics of scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around.

A careful reading of the scriptural story, however, reveals a God who abundantly provides for the health and flourishing of creation. Maybe we can no longer fully rely on meeting our budgets by passing the offering plate, but this economic reality in many churches does not mean that we have to despair.  Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us. Specifically, our churches should reflect on the assets God has provided in our people, our buildings, and our land.

Times of tightening budgets demand economic imagination of us, and the stirring of our imagination begins with reflection on the abundance that God has already provided for us.

I’ve been fortunate to see and hear stories of churches across North America that are thinking creatively about these resources and drawing upon them as a means of sustaining themselves economically. In order to get your own imagination moving, I wanted to briefly share some of the creative economic activity that churches are doing.  (I don’t expect that all of these ideas will be applicable to every church situation, but hopefully there might be an idea or two here that might have potential for adaptation in your church.)

Human Resources: What has God provided in the gifts and skills of your congregation (and/or your neighbors)?

And how can these gifts be leveraged in a way that benefits the church, the neighborhood or both? Many churches are starting businesses that draw upon skills in their congregation or neighborhood to bring in additional income.  Some churches start coffeehouses, restaurants or gathering places. University Christian Church in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, for instance, has started the very successful Roh’s Street Café.

61DJ2UqrooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Here at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, we have started half-a-dozen businesses over the last two decades, each of which began on a very small scale with the intersection of a gift that we had in our congregation and an opportunity to serve others in our neighborhood (or beyond).  Our businesses include an early childhood education center, an affordable housing operation, a hydroponic farm, and our magazine The Englewood Review of Books. Other churches have started businesses in catering, cleaning, and painting among other things.

Building Resources: What has God provided in the building(s) that we own?

While there are many missional advantages to owning a building, we should always be mindful that many churches through the ages – including most in the New Testament stories – have flourished without owning a building. Selling your building may be the most extreme case, and may not even be possible for some churches, given their denominational arrangements, but it is good to be reminded that churches can survive without owning a building.

Many churches are finding creative ways of sharing their buildings, and the cost of their operation. Sometimes these creative uses intersect with businesses that the church has started (such as Roh’s Street Café mentioned above). With careful coordination of schedules, some churches share their buildings with other churches. Other churches make space in their building available for rent: for office or co-working space for non-profits or entrepreneurs; for studio space for artists; for meeting space for neighborhood groups; or if they have a commercial kitchen, for catering or other food-based entrepreneurs.

And building assets might include more than just the traditional church building. Some churches own parsonages or other residential buildings. If these residences are empty or under-utilized, they could be sold, rented out through a traditional lease, or even operated on a short-term rental basis through services like AIRBNB.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we have a former 5-bedroom parsonage that we have renovated and use as a hospitality house for retreats, for people who are visiting us from other places, and for other situations where friends need a short-term place to stay.

Land Resources: What are the assets God has provided us in our land? 

Many churches are starting community gardens that provide good, home-grown food for church members or neighbors.  Community gardens may not be the most profitable venture, but there are ways to generate small profits from them.  In addition to selling some of the produce, there are many grants available for community gardens, and some of these may allow for a portion of the grant to go to the personnel who administrate the grant, or for a minimal lease of the land being used for the garden.

Some churches like Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta have allocated part of their land as a nature preserve. Under-utilized portions of church land could be developed or sold, particularly if doing so would benefit their neighborhood. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver, BC realized several years ago that it had more parking lot than it needed, and in one of the highest cost housing markets in the world, they are in the process of developing affordable housing on this land, which will be affordable because the land – the most expensive part of any development in Vancouver – was already owned by the congregation.

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God has indeed provided abundantly for us, and for the flourishing of our neighbors in this place! 

May we have eyes of gratitude that see the riches God has provided for us, and imaginative minds that discern how to use these resources in ways that sustain and bless our congregation and our neighbors. As our eyes and minds are opened to God’s provision, we will be led out of despair and into hope.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He and his family are members of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Chris’s most recent book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, 2016).

An Osage Mirror: A Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

 

Two-thirds of the way through this book [Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI] and I was fixing to get very disappointed.  Sure, David Grann had done what his title said that he was going to do.  He had thrown us into the strange wave of murders that plagued Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s.  Native people, newly enriched from headright sales of mineral rights, were dying mysteriously, violently, in great numbers.  Some nefarious plot was brewing and people were poisoned, shot, bombed, and thrown from trains.

Enter Agent Tom White and the new Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI.  The upstanding law men, using a mix of Western savvy and modern scientific methods, cracked the case, identified the culprits, and brought them in.  By the end of the second part, or “chronicle” as this book has it, the climactic courtroom scene has happened and we are well into the wrap-up stories of where the principals ended up.  J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation has been solidified and he goes on to be a Washington institution.  Tom White becomes the warden of Leavenworth and later writes a book.  Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman at the center of the story, goes on to remarry.  “We’re clearly winding things up here,” I thought.

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_So we had the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, as promised.  But, wait—did we really get that much about the Osage people and their culture?  And compelling as the storyline was, did it really end so cleanly?  What about all the loose ends?  The doctors who seemed not only incompetent but complicit?  The other deaths that seemed to have nothing to do with the man who was fingered?

It was then that I noticed that some 70 pages still remained and yet a third chronicle.  The story was about to get much better and much worse.

David Grann doesn’t linger over the big questions.  Like the Bureau men he clearly admires, Grann sticks to the facts.  Sometimes they are evocative facts, like the way the sun “floated above the rim of the earth—a perfect orange sphere that soon became half a sun, then a quarter, before dying off with a burst of dazzling light.”  But most of the time they are much more prosaic.

It keeps his story simple, which is a relief because there are a lot of characters to keep up with here.  The oil boom that made the Osage millionaires brought a lot of interests to Oklahoma.  The way that the Osage story fits into the larger narrative of how white America dealt with native peoples was complicated enough and full of prejudice and exploitation.  The system of guardianships that left mostly white men in charge of the wealth of the Osage (because the Osage were deemed incapable of managing it on their own) only compounded the problems.

So when the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.  Grann uses a Faulkner quote from Absalom! Absalom! to send us down into the abyss: “We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”

When the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.

Maybe it’s because Grann really does feel that the people whose lives he is exploring are inexplicable that he lets Faulkner carry all the weight of what this all means.  He can’t fathom the horrors of a story that is not about one bad actor but a whole society.  He can’t begin to get at the psychological scars such a history produces.  He doesn’t have answers for the desolation he sees out on the depopulated prairie where this story unfolded.

So he does the responsible thing and just points.  Look at this.  Behold.  See if you can keep your innocence in the face of this story.  And all those facts from early in the book that seemed distant and quaint and made you think of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s?  How distant and quaint do they seem now?  I helped you look at this.  You’ve got to look at us.

Grann does what he can and it is considerable.  This is historical journalism that resonates.

The Weird & Beautiful Vision of George Saunders: A Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

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photo by Ashim D’Silva via Unsplash

 

You would not think that a full-scale recapitulation of Ecclesiastes would make a great bestseller.  Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!  This human thing is an exercise of unknowing.  I know that there is nothing better than that they should eat, drink, and experience pleasure in their hard work.  This is the philosophy of the Preacher.

But George Saunders is a fascinating variety of weird.  In Tenth of December, his 2013 short story collection, he found a hundred ways to trouble the surface of contemporary life and it was funny and edgy, drawing on spirituality and our anxieties about the technological age and what it’s doing to our sense of self.  Flannery O’Connor meets Gary Shteyngart is how I described it.

George Saunders is a fascinating variety of weird.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel, he’s still working with an outrageous premise—that the ghostly residents of a certain DC cemetery are spying on President Lincoln as he visits the grave of his recently-dead son—and he’s still impossible to put down.  This is the work of an author using all of his gifts, most especially his prodigious curiosity, to wonder at the meaning of eternal things.

LincolnintheBardoThe historical nugget around which the story is built is a scant mention of Lincoln’s late-night visits in 1862 to the crypt where his young son, Willie, was interred.  Saunders uses a mountain of historical research and some added fictional accounts to paint a portrait of Lincoln that is full of contradictions.  At times the historical voices can’t even agree on Lincoln’s eye color, much less his political policies.  And the weight of these judgments by his contemporaries weighs on the president, whose own inner voice in this novel is full of the awareness, not only of the death in his own life, but of the many deaths he feels responsible for in the nascent war.

Lincoln is interesting, but the real characters in this story are the dead who are lingering in the graveyard.  The bardo is a concept borrowed from Buddhism in which disembodied souls are caught in an intermediate, waiting state following death.  The residents here can’t quite come to grips with where they are.  They refer to the cemetery as a “hospital-yard” and their coffins as “sick-boxes” and they chastise each other for believing that their earthly stories are at an end.  When “angels” invade to encourage their compatriots to “move on,” they see it as a threat, even though its clear that this is the way to peace.

The residents here can’t quite come to grips with where they are.  They refer to the cemetery as a “hospital-yard” and their coffins as “sick-boxes” and they chastise each other for believing that their earthly stories are at an end.

This is like nothing so much as C.S. Lewis’ vision of the after-life in The Great Divorce in which souls that could not discover God and peace in life are still struggling after death.  As in that book, the appearance of the dead is sometimes fantastically altered to reflect their inner struggles.  Those who can’t let go of their distorting preoccupations are condemned to continue suffering them.

There are some problems here.  Saunders handling of the black characters seems a little tacked on and the way he suggests that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the result of possession by one of them is too clever by half.  But the overall effect is…well, haunting.

When Lincoln finally moves to leave his boy, his parting words are not profound, but ring with all the pain and beauty of grief: “Love, love, I know what you are.”

This book is an affirmation of life and an honest admission that the world is greater than we can know.  Like Psalm 131, the perspective veers toward a studied contentment: “Lord, my heart isn’t proud; my eyes aren’t conceited.  I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.  No.  But I have calmed and quieted myself like a weaned child on its mother.”

Or as Roger Bevins, III, regretful about his suicide, puts it at the end (in not too much of a spoiler, I hope):

“None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.  These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and in this way, brought them forth.  And now we must lose them.

“I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant. Goodbye goodbye good-”

James Baldwin’s Moment and the Danger of Racial Innocence

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

James Baldwin is having a moment, 30 years after his death.  First, Ta-Nehasi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book that drew its inspiration from Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, topped The New York Times’ bestsellers list.  Then, a documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was time for me to see what the fuss was about.

51P9xUYx6DL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Fire Next Time is a brief, searing read.  In it, Baldwin tells his own life story as an African-American man growing up in mid-century Harlem within the larger narrative of race in America.  At times angry and disillusioned, it also works below the surface of racial tensions to come up with a surprising definition of love.  “Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”  But until America, and particularly white America, comes to see itself as it really is and not as it imagines itself to be, love will be perverted into antipathy and fear.

“Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Baldwin sees the danger of the myth of innocence.  In imagining that we are a color-blind society with a heroic narrative of advancing civilization, we fail to see how the ripples, the peoples!, who trouble that narrative would allow us to be more honest, more open to new frontiers.  “What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might being new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.”

I find this book as fresh and relevant as Coates’ book, even though it is more than a half-century old.  Perhaps because it seems so clear that we are just as incapable of grappling with race as we ever have been.  In fact, the lines between us have hardened between those who see race as a pretext for liberal policies and those who see it’s avoidance as evidence of white nationalism.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.  To spend vital energy denying its existence or continuing impact is to whistle in the wind.  One might as well deny the fact of death, which is what Baldwin says that white Americans do.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.

We are prone to simple narratives in these days.  Our summer blockbuster plot lines boil down to a cataclysmic confrontation with personified evil overcome by a hero, if not good, at least justified.  We are drawn to leaders with simple answers – walls, guns, and jails.

But the church, which Baldwin found so energizing and ultimately disappointing, is nonetheless the custodian of a language of faith that offers something deeper.  Within the story of God and ourselves in the Bible is a Love that refuses to credit any of the easy lies we tell ourselves.  In the light of the cross, we can have no illusions that there is an innocent history.

We are chained by forces that resist God’s work of mercy and redemption.  We are incapable of seeing how truly distorted our lives become.  It takes a God incarnate in the world and on a cross to “deliver us from slavery to sin and death,” as the United Methodist communion liturgy has it.

Baldwin’s writing is suffused with the language of the church.  It lends him an urgency for the time we face.  To wit, his closing line: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in son by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!